Diversity in YA and Why It’s So Necessary

if you’d told me six years ago that there was such a thing as “diversity” in YA, i would have been genuinely befuddled. not because i wouldn’t have known what it meant, not because i would have been opposed to it, but because it didn’t seem likely in YA. true; occasionally, i would come across the Latino “sidekick”, or the gay best friend, or the quiet Muslim co-worker. i might have recalled the¬†lightskinned¬†black guy in the mix of white kids in a friend group. but diversity? what was that? honestly, if you’d asked me when i was twelve or thirteen years old, i would have more likely remembered what was considered “radical” not necessarily what was “diverse”. a girl protagonist who wasn’t cast off as a shy, non-troublesome, or conforming person. a girl protagonist who could dish out snarky comebacks faster than Olive Penderghast. a girl protagonist, again, who – contrary to being sheltered an submissive – wasn’t “like other girls”. a strictly white feminist ideology that i considered radical, and hence, diverse. of course, what all these examples have in common is the girl – who also happened to be cisgender, heterosexual, and white.

don’t get me wrong; i was well aware that YA literature incorporated stories that weren’t molding to this bland cishet wet dream. the problem wasn’t that they weren’t present, because they were; the problem was that they were invisible, at least to me and my friends. for a long time, i lived and read in a Bubble containing stories that were identical. if i picked up a book off a library shelf, i was unsurprised to find a girl protagonist just like the one before her. i didn’t think of these girls as white or Caucasian (or whatever white people call themselves), i thought of them as just the standard Americans. each girl on the bookshelf in my Bubble was around sixteen or seventeen years old; had blonde, dirty blonde, or light brown hair; and had light-coloured eyes – green or blue or hazel or light brown or even, in the case of those YA paranormal/fantasies, violet. until i saw outside of the Bubble, YA literature was rampant with these girls, who saw themselves as flawed, despite basically catering to every European beauty standard on the market. if it was body dysmorphia an author was presenting, i would have considered this unimportant. but it wasn’t. this was every book i pulled off a pile.

what about the “diverse” characters? unsurprisingly, they fell under the same stereotypes. i can’t even begin to recall the number of Latinx characters who seemed to undergo the same exact personas in alternate stories. they would be the best friend, or the take-no-crap kid at school, or the rebel, or – of course – the guy in the poorer neighbourhood with multiple siblings whom the girl protagonist fell in love with. and most would parrot endearments or insults or what-have-you in Spanish, as if the other stereotypes weren’t enough. black kids? i can barely remember them. a character could have a black parent, or a black friend, but black characters, in general, existed on the sidelines – i’ve noticed this trend has not changed, in YA or NA. rarely would i find racial or ethnic minorities that weren’t associated with some sort of stereotype. and LGBTQ+ characters, if they weren’t the main characters, were accessorized. gay boys were to girls as sticks are to puppies. and for some reason, bisexuality or pansexuality were never represented in any of the novels i’d read. and – in case this wasn’t obvious – every LGBTQ+ person had to be white.

i mean, at least the writers gave us the courtesy of upholding ethnic minorities in this splendid light. mixed children somehow became these exotic artifacts possessing light brown hair, green eyes, and tanned skin. which is actually twice as bad, because what if our characters were flawed? what if, like the white girls inside the Bubble, we thought we didn’t look good enough? at the time, i was a fat, teenaged girl in high school. i am Bengali-Canadian, and knew nothing about my own sexuality, having grown up in a strict Muslim household. it seemed impossible to read a book about me. the closest i had come was reading about equally fat young-adults. but the difference, of course, was that they were neither brown nor Muslim, so they had the privilege of being outspoken and non-adherent to mainstream beauty standards with less backlash. and it’s not that i expect, right now, for someone to immediately publish that story, it’s that it seemed so unlikely at the time. and when i did read about someone closer to my identity – in that she was Muslim – i was grossly disappointed. i still remember it, because even though she wasn’t a main character, she stood out from the rest for wearing a headscarf. but more importantly, the white author who wrote her character described her as someone struggling to break free from her father’s oppressive clutches and be able to work a job.

and that, consequently, is one of my main issues with white authors who “incorporate” diverse characters. it’s as if people of colour, and Muslim kids, and anyone of the LGBTQ+ community has a duty to be as different from the mainstream as possible, even while the whole point is to appear as normal kids – which we are. it’s as if a character existing outside the boundaries of “white cis heteronormative” standards is so radical that for them to be normalized is abnormal. hence, why mixed children in novels are given perfect chocolate-y or caramel-y dewy skin with chiselled jawlines, curly luscious brown hair, and intense green eyes. if this kid was around, they had to supercede the bland, classic lifestyle that suited the white girl. the Bubble existed to contain all the normalcy that was the white kid, and everything that existed outside of it was too exotic to be considered normal. because diversity was considered a profound idea in all those novels, i implicitly believed that being a standard white kid whose parents had a decent income was more “normal”, which pushed me to continue reading YA following the same pattern.

now, though, i’m seeing a lot of big changes. in the years since, i’ve opened my eyes a lot and have seen so many differences presented to me. i go to my local Indigo and see an entire bookshelf dedicated to LGBTQ+ YA novels – with gay, lesbian, trans, etc. protagonists, not side characters. i search up “young adult novels with minorities” and find a whole Goodreads list compiled for that purpose. i search young adult book tags for new reads and find books about magical realism, gender transitioning, bisexuality, and being a brown girl in an arranged relationship (comedified!). and, of course, i find books about feminism; not white feminism, which i’d considered “different” and “refreshing”, but feminism encountering and including intersections like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. they are funny, heartfelt, cute, and they exist beyond any Bubble. that, to me, is “diversity”, and we need more of it.

there is still a lot of work to be done. there are still stereotypes we have to encounter and dismantle. the biggest problem with the struggle to find books without misplaced content and stereotypes was that a lot of the authors who established these norms were white, and i cannot express enough how problematic that is. listen, amplifying the voices of minorities is different from speaking over us, and by publishing a book where you define the boundaries between a white cishet kid and a brown Muslim one, you have the control here. and that pushes publishers to idealize your warped image of us over our own voices, and minimizes the potential for diversity to actually be a thing. now that i’m seeing diverse groups of people writing their/our own stories, we have to support each other here so the influx is far greater. of course, there are still intersections between race and sexuality, gender and race, and religion and all three, that have meaningful histories and deserve representation as well. but right now, it means a lot that “diversity” isn’t so lackluster, so invisible. there are brown, black, East Asian, LGBTQ+, etc. authors writing these stories, not having our voices suppressed by others. it means the world to me, and by the time i start working in the book publishing industry (hopefully!), my biggest desire is to see more of this diversity.

here’s the thing: diversity in YA has always been possible. it’s also always been present. i think the platform to share these stories was quite smaller, however, and there was little recognition for them. other people told our stories, and warped our presence to adhere to suit their standards, which was why “diversity” was so invisible. i think many of us were just waiting on the sidelines for a way to have our stories told in a way as “normal” and visible as a mainstream voice would be told, and without being seen as ethereal or “different”. we are as normal as we are different, and we deserve a chance to prove it.

– W